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A short story by Wardon Allan Curtis

The Adventure Of The Virtuous Spinster

Title:     The Adventure Of The Virtuous Spinster
Author: Wardon Allan Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

Miss Almira Johnson was a virtuous spinster, aged thirty-nine, who lived in a highly respectable boarding-house on the north side. Her days she spent in keeping the books of a large leather firm, in an office which she shared with two male clerks who were married, and a red-headed boy of sixteen, who was small for his age.

On the evening when my tale begins, Miss Almira, tastefully attired for her night's rest in a white nightgown trimmed with blue lace, was peeping under the bed for the ever-possible man, the nightly rite preliminary to her prayers. She fell back gasping in a vain attempt to scream, but not a sound could she give vent to. The precaution of years had been justified. There lay a man! He was habited in a very genteel frock-suit, patent-leather shoes, and although it must have caused him some inconvenience in his recumbent position, upon his head was a correct plug hat. The elegance and respectability of his garb somewhat reassured Miss Almira, who was unable to believe that one so apparelled could have secreted himself under her bed for an evil purpose, when a new fear seized her, for arguing from this assumption, she concluded he must have been placed there by others and was, in short, dead. Whereupon, having to some degree recovered possession of herself, she was opening her mouth to scream at this new terror, when the man spoke.

"Listen before you scream, I pray thee, beauteous lady, darling of my life, pearl of my desires, star of my hopes."

The strangeness of the address and the unaccustomed epithets caused Miss Almira to forbear, for she could not hear what he had to say and scream at the same time, and, moreover, she remembered how twenty years before, Jake Long had fled, never to return to her side, when after telling her she was the sweetest thing in the world, she had screamed as his arms clasped about her in a bearish hug.

"Fair lady, ornament of your sex, hear the words of your ardent admirer before you blast his hopes."

As he uttered these words, the stranger extricated himself from his undignified position and sat down in a rocking chair before the bureau. Miss Almira was more than ever prepossessed as she saw he wore white kid gloves and that in his shirt front gleamed a large diamond. He removed his hat, disclosing a heavy crop of black hair. He had blue eyes and a strong, clean-shaven face.

"For some time I have observed you and wondered how I was to realize my fondest hopes and make your acquaintance. All day you are in the office, where the two married men and the red-headed boy are always de trop. My employment is of a nature that takes me out nights. In fact, I teach a night school for Italians. To-day being an Italian holiday and so no school, and as there is a possibility I shall soon leave the city for an extended season, I have been unable to devise any other means of declaring myself before the time for my departure. Pray pardon me for the abruptness and importunity of my declaration, pray forgive me for the unusual way which I have taken to secure an interview alone with you. But if you only knew the ardor of my love, my impatience--oh, would that our union could be effected this very night!"

Ravished by the elegance of the stranger both in his outward seeming and his converse, melted by the warmth of a romantic devotion almost unknown in these degenerate days, though common enough of yore, Miss Almira paused a moment in the proud compliance of one about to gladly bestow an inestimable, but hardly hoped-for gift, and crying, "It can be done, it shall be done," threw herself into the cavalier's arms.

"How so?" asked the stranger, after Miss Almira had disengaged herself at the elapse of a proper interval.

"Why, the Rev. Eusebius Williams has the next room. We will call him."

"But," said the stranger, "I thought the occupant of the next room was Mr. Algernon Tibbs, a gentleman from the country, who has recently sold a large number of hogs here in the city and has been ill in his room for a space by reason of a contusion on the head from a gold brick, which was, so to speak, twice thrown at his head, once figuratively as a ridiculously fine bargain which he refused to take, and again when the owner, angered, struck him with the rejected gold."

"I see," said Miss Almira archly, "that in planning for this, you have tried to study the lay of the land; but be gratified, sir, for the lucky chance which prevented a sad mistake. Mr. Tibbs and I do occupy adjoining rooms. But the one Mr. Tibbs occupies is really mine. To-day we exchanged and I will remain here for the four or five days Mr. Tibbs is to be in the city. He has a large sum of money in his possession, so we all infer. At any rate, he was afraid to sleep in this room, where there is a fire escape at the window, and took mine, where an unscalable wall prevents access. Suppose the Italian holiday had been last night and you had come then. He would then have taken you for a robber, notwithstanding that anybody could see you are a gentleman."

For the first time did Miss Almira become conscious she was not robed as one should be while receiving callers, and blushing violently, she leaped into bed, whence she bid the stranger retire for a bit until she could dress, when they would invoke the kindly offices of the Rev. Eusebius Williams.

"Your name," she called, as the stranger was about to retire.

"My name," said he impressively, "which will soon be yours, is Breckenridge Endicott."

"Mulvane," said Mr. Breckenridge Endicott to himself, noiselessly descending the stairs, "what if she had screamed before you had pulled yourself together and thought of that stunt? You didn't get old Tibb's money, but you did get--away."

Mr. Endicott tried the front door. To his apparent annoyance, there was no bolt, no knob to unlock it, and key there was none. In the parlors, he could hear the voices of boarders.

"No way there, Mulvane," said Mr. Endicott. "I'll go into the kitchen and walk out the back door. If there's anybody there, they'll think me a new boarder."

But he started violently and stood for some moments trembling for no assignable reason, as he saw in front of the range a fat German hired girl sitting in the lap of a fat Irish policeman.

"No go through Almira's room to the fire escape. But perhaps I can get out on the roof and get away somehow. She can't have dressed so soon," and he ascended the stairs to run plump into Miss Almira, who popped out of her room, resplendent in a rustling black silk.

"Oh, you impatient thing," said Miss Almira, shaking a reproving finger. "I put this on, and then I thought I ought to wear something white, and so came out to tell you not to get impatient waiting, and why I kept you so long," and back she popped.

"You are up against it, Mulvane," said Mr. Breckenridge Endicott, sitting disconsolately down upon the stairs. "Hold on, just the thing. Why, as her husband, you'll live here unsuspected and get in with old Tibbs. Why, the job will be pie. It won't be mean to her, either. When you just vanish, she'll have 'Mrs.' tacked to her name, and that'll help her. It will be lots of satisfaction. They can't call her an old maid. 'Better 'tis to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.' I'll give her some of the boodle. She isn't bad looking. Wonder why nobody ever grabbed on to her. If I had enough to live well, I'd marry her myself and settle down."

The Rev. Eusebius Williams, with ten dollars fee in his right pantaloons pocket, and the radiant Almira, did not look happier during the wedding ceremony than did Mr. Breckenridge Endicott.

It was seldom that Mr. Endicott was absent from the side of his wife during the next few days. Occasionally pleading urgent business, he left her to go down town with Mr. Tibbs, whom he was seeking to interest in a plan to extract gold from sea water, a plan upon which Mr. Tibbs looked with some favor, for as presented by Mr. Endicott, it was one of great feasibility and promised enormous profits. In the setting forth of the method of extraction, Mr. Endicott was much aided by his wife, who overhearing him in earnest consultation with Mr. Tibbs bounded in and demanded to know what it was all about. Mr. Endicott demurred, saying it was an abstruse matter which should not burden so poetical a mind as hers. But Mr. Tibbs set it forth to her briefly. Having in her youth made much of the sciences of chemistry and physics, to the great amaze and admiration of Mr. Endicott, she launched into a most lucid explication of the practicability of the plan, leaving Mr. Tibbs more than ever inclined to venture his thousands.

"By Jove, she'll do, Mulvane. Why cut and run? Take her along. She is a splendid grafter," said Mr. Endicott to himself, as he and his wife withdrew from the presence of Mr. Tibbs. "My dear," he continued aloud, "I was overcome by respect for the way you aided me. You are indeed a jewel. I had never suspected you understood me, knew what I was, until you came in and explained that sucker trap. You are a most unexpected ally. You perceive clearly how the thing works?"

"Why, of course, Breckenridge. I have not studied science in vain, though I do not recall what part of the machine you call 'sucker trap'. Doubtless the contrivance marked 'converter,' in the drawings. Of course I understood you, right from the first, a noble, noble man, and so romantic. But Brecky, dear, why let other people share in this invention? Why not make all the money ourselves and become million, millionaires? I shall build churches and libraries and support missionaries. Why let Mr. Tibbs, who is a somewhat gross person, enjoy any of the fruits of your genius?"

Whereupon Mr. Endicott's face took on an expression of deep disappointment, disillusionment, and sorrow, until seeing his own sorrow mingled with alarm reflected on his wife's face, he presently announced that they would depart on their wedding journey by boat for Mackinac three days hence.

"I shall stop fiddle-faddling and settle the business which delays me here, at one stroke. The old simple methods are the best."

As Mr. and Mrs. Breckenridge Endicott were entering their cab to drive to the wharf, Mrs. Maxon, the landlady, came hurriedly with the scandal that Mr. Algernon Tibbs had been found in his room in the stupor of intoxication.

"Why, he might have been robbed while in that condition," said Mrs. Maxon.

"He will not be robbed while under your roof," said Mr. Endicott gallantly. "He is safe from robbing now. He will not, he cannot, I may say, be robbed now."

The sun was touching the western horizon as the steamer glided out of the river's mouth. The wind lay dead upon the water, and for a space the pair sat in the tender light of declining day indulging in the pleasures of conversation, but at length Mr. Endicott led his wife to their stateroom.

"On this auspicious day, I wish to make you a gift," and he handed her a thousand dollars in bills. "My presence is now required on the lower deck for a time. Be patient during my absence," whereupon he embraced her with an ardor he had never shown before and there was in his voice a strange ring of regret and longing such as Almira had never listened to. It thrilled her very soul and bestowing upon him a shower of passionate kisses and an embrace of the utmost affection, their parting took on almost the agony of a parting for years.

"Where the devil is that coal passer Mullanphy, I gave a job to?" said the engineer on the lower deck. "Is he aboard?"

"His dunnage is in his bunk, but nobody ain't seen him," replied one of the crew.

"Who the devil is that geezer in a Prince Albert and a plug hat that just went in back there, and what the devil is he up to?" said the engineer again, as a black-clothed figure passed toward the stern.

A few moments later, a sturdy man in a jumper and overalls, his face smeared with grime, peered cautiously around a bulkhead, and seeing nobody, stepped quickly to the side of the vessel, bearing a limp and spineless figure in a black frock and silk hat. With a dextrous movement, he cast the thing forth, and as it went flopping through the air and slapped the water, from somewhere arose the voice of Mr. Breckenridge Endicott crying, "Help! help! help!"

Mrs. Endicott, full of dole at the absence of her spouse and oppressed with a nameless disquiet, had paced the upper deck impatiently, and at this moment stood just above where her beloved went leaping to his doom. With one wild scream, she jumped, she scrambled, she fell to the lower deck, colliding with a man leaning out looking at the sinking figure. Down, with a vain and frantic clutching at the side that only served to stay his fall so that he slipped silently into the water under the vessel's counter, went the unfortunate man.

Plump, into the yawl with the rescue crew, went Mrs. Endicott. Far astern through the dusk could be seen a black silk hat on the still water. Astern could be heard the voice of Mr. Breckenridge Endicott crying, "Quick, quick! I can swim a little, but I am almost gone!"

"Turn to the left, to the left," cried Mrs. Endicott.

"But the cries come from the right," said the coxswain.

"That's his hat to the left. I know his hat. I saw him fall. I know his voice. It's his hat and his voice."

The crew could have sworn that the cries came from the right, but to the hat they steered and the cries ceased before their arrival. They lifted the hat. Nothing beneath but eighty fathoms of water.

It was some time thereafter that a fisherman came upon a corpse floating inshore. Its face was bloated to such an extent as to prevent recognition. Its clothes were those of a steamboat roustabout. In the breastpocket was a large pocketbook bearing in gilt letters the legend, "Mr. Breckenridge Endicott."

"The present I gave him on the morning of our departure!" exclaimed Miss Almira, "now so strangely found on the dead body of the man who robbed him and probably murdered him."

Although soaked, the bills were redeemable. The fisherman was a fisherman who owned a town house on Prairie Avenue and a country house at Oconomowoc and he would take no reward. The bills amounted to nine thousand dollars. Taking her fortune, Almira retired to her former home in Ogle county, Illinois, where once more meeting Mr. Jake Long, lately made a widower, after a decent period of waiting, they became man and wife. So it ended happily for all except the person who called himself Mr. Breckenridge Endicott--though I suspect that was not his name--and for Mr. Algernon Tibbs. Lest you waste pity on Mr. Algernon Tibbs, let me say that in his youth, he was accustomed to kill little girl's cats, and that his fortune was entirely one he beat out of his brother-in-law, James Wilkinson.

[The end]
Wardon Allan Curtis's short story: Adventure Of The Virtuous Spinster